It was a mighty busy week last week and no mistake. Amongst the various goings on, yours truly featured in last Friday’s installment of Dublin City FM‘s Sodshow with Peter Donegan, to which you can listen back below (and, yes, the interview was recorded much earlier this year – at Sonairte‘s Potato Day – hence the springtime talk of potatoes chitting in my hallway).
Curiously enough, it was when I reemerged from the recording of said interview that I stumbled into what I later christened The Great Potato Standoff of 2013 – an incident which had everything to do with the feverish interest generated by the return of the Lumper potato last March. And, as I learned this week, those newly-resurrected Famine-era spuds are far from a flash in the pan…
Back in March of this year, Marks & Spencer Ireland announced a limited three week run of Lumpers, grown for them by Michael McKillop of Glens of Antrim Potatoes. It signalled the first time that the Lumper potato – which had been the mainstay of the Irish peasant farmer in the pre-Famine era, and which had succumbed in such devastating fashion to the onslaught of blight in 1845 – had been grown in any kind of significant quantity in Ireland in around 170 years.
Interest in the variety was huge and it was no great surprise to hear that they were returning for another season in bigger volumes. A lunch in Gallagher’s Boxty House last Thursday marked the launch of the new season of Lumpers – they’ll have their own pitch throughout Marks & Spencer stores in Ireland, both north and south, and a supply that grower Michael McKillop estimates will last through until January.
I chatted with Conrad Digan, head of selling and marketing for Marks & Spencer Ireland, about the response they got last March:
It resonated with people. ‘Have you got the old famine potatoes,’ that’s what they asked for. We were selling out of them so quickly – as soon as we had them in, they were gone; people were ringing ahead to say hold some for me – and that would [normally] never happen with potatoes.
While there may have been an air of novelty about it – and some people will always want that which is hard to get – it seems that the interest in this particular spud runs deep. That interest comes as no surprise to collector Dave Langford, whom Michael McKillop acknowledges as the original source of his Lumper seeds:
When I started collecting potatoes, I realised that the old varieties were disappearing. And whenever I was showing the collection, the first thing people would say is ‘do you have the Lumper’ – and they would hold it and say, gosh, we lost so many of our family to the Famine; they would relate their whole family history, so I’ve always been a fanatic for it and kept it going.
So it seems that this knobbly old potato, whose feastibility was amply demonstrated at last Thursday’s launch by way of traditional champ mash, boxty pancakes and new-to-me boxty scratchings – boxty strips, thinly sliced, deeply fried and dangerously addictive – is about far more than lunch or dinner.
The Lumper is no less than a piece of living history that functions as a conduit for conversations about the Famine, and several of the attendees attested to that. Michael Blanch of the Committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims, who gives talks on the subject in schools and elsewhere, put it thus:
The Lumper is making the telling of the story of the Famine a lot easier. It’s not just death and destruction, there’s life after – you tell the story through the potato: you’re planting it and you’re telling them about it, and again when you’re harvesting it; it’s a great teaching tool.
And that tool has been applied, among other places, in the Derry area, where the Living Heritage Project saw pupils from 12 schools growing Lumpers, harvesting them and later learning to cook with them too.
Pete St. John, meanwhile, the singer-songwriter most famous for his anthemic Fields of Athenry, set during Famine times, and who also attended the lunch, declared simply that “the Lumper has taken over my life.” He talks enthusiastically about it to anyone who cares to listen, both here and in the U.S., and has put pen to paper to write the Lumper song, no less.
The Canadian Ambassador, Loyola Hearn, was also on hand. The Lumpers provide a talking point for Canadians with Irish heritage and, among other things, Ambassador Hearn has presided at an Irish-Canadian event where – in true cross-cultural fashion – Lumpers were barbecued and served to 300+ attendees. Famine, it seems, has turned well and truly into feast.
The Lumper Song
Reproduced with the blessing of author Pete St. John
We were singing The Fields of Athenry
In the Glens of Antrim bye and bye
At a great Potato Picnic in the woods
A campfire style potato roast
To celebrate from coast to coast
The Irish Famine Lumper …King of Spuds!!
Chorus: Hail the Lumper, King of Spuds
King of Spuds! King of Spuds!!
Gone since 1845
Now is back forever !!!!
The Lumper King we grow today
And serve it in the boxty way
Like when it was our island’s saviour food!!
In Famine times a killer blight
Had killed the Lumper over night
Now its back!! ..and we’re in a singing mood!!
We hope that now across the world
The Lumper taste will be unfurled
To grace the tables of the rich and poor
And with a Lumper on your plate
Just pause and then commemorate
The tragic Irish Famine days of yore
Really interesting post, Aoife – thanks for writing. Do you know where I might find up-to-date stats on European potato consumption? Every country I go to seems to think they eat the most potatoes and I can’t find anything reliable or current. Thanks!
Thanks June, glad you liked the post. Re: stats, I know what you mean about it being hard to get concrete figures – they seem to vary wildly, and it doesn’t help that some figures relate to raw, uncooked weight and some refer to cooked weight, and some are based on agricultural production figures and some on consumer survey data, and they can all give very different results.
In any case, FAOSTAT will at least give you a reasonable basis for comparing consumption in different countries – have a look at the their Food Balance Sheet page. Basically they tot up production, import & export figures to get the total domestic supply of various crops and then, based on the amount that’s used for food, they work out a per capita consumption (the most recent data here is from 2009).
To see a comparison of consumption in different countries, select ‘Items’ and then ‘potatoes’ from the dropdown and select to view by Countries; you can click on the kg/yr column to order by that value. The top 6 in terms of per capita potato consumption for 2009 according to these figures were Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Ireland, so that should give you something to go on…
Hi Aoife, Pete St. John now that’s some good name dropping, I was going to do a little fields of Athenry but ended up with a bit of rhyme instead. Lovely article, Take care,
Low lie the fields of lumpers blight, where once futures seemed so bright,
Now dashed in tubers black and mush, silent figures voices hushed,
Whose days are numbered back in these fields, these row by row refuse to yield, Nary a spud thats white or firm all is bleak all forlorn,
And yet life goes on and struggles well, through the famine a living hell,
To emerge triumphant as years go by, farmers again their trade they ply,
Till crops are grown in numbers bumper and all is safe even the lumper.
Indeed Brian, when it comes to Irish balladeers, Pete St. John is a bit of a heavyweight alright, was a pleasure to meet him. And you’re not too shabby yourself on the bit of ol’ rhyme there – yet another example of inspiration by Lumper!
Aoife,Great so hear about children growing Lumpers. Maybe they got a practical lesson on blight too? These Boxty pancakes: do you think they were based on flour and mash or flour and grated spud or no flour but with egg and milk like Potato Drop? They look almost paper thin and white so I suspect flour but no egg. I wonder what they use as batter for Scratchings – the next variation on crisps?
Hi David – perhaps the kids did indeed get a practical lesson on blight! As for the boxty pancakes, they would, I’m pretty sure, have been based on a combination of mash, grated raw potato, flour, milk or buttermilk and no egg (in my experience, recipes for boxty almost never include egg). The same basic formula would apply to the scratchings – the boxty pancakes in Gallagher’s are usually made larger and a little thicker than those in the photo and it is those pancakes that were (as I understand it) sliced & deep-fried to make the scratchings – crispy, with a little bit of chew and very tasty indeed.
A woman who immigrated to the US from Siberia told me that potatoes were not just their main food, but often their only food during the long winters.
How interesting Janet – they certainly eat a lot of potatoes in the Russian Federation – one of the highest rates of consumption in the world – but I wasn’t aware of quite how important it was during the Siberian winters, so thanks for that little insight.
Janet’s comment reminds me of the man from the potato board in Washington state who ate nothing but spuds for 60 days – about 10 a day if I remember correctly. He lost weight (good) and lowered blood cholesterol and blood pressure and felt more fit (all good). That record is just waiting to be beaten – anyone?
I think it was actually 20 potatoes a day David, if memory serves (although I don’t think the gentleman in question necessarily managed 20 spuds every day but certainly something approaching that) and he did indeed report good – and at least partially unexpected – outcomes vis a vis weight & cholesterol etc.
I’ve certainly given the idea of an all-spud diet some thought, and myself & Kaethe Burt-O’Dea have had conversations about it in the past – I think I got a bit hung up on the details instead of just going for it!
You are right, Aoife, and he lost 21lbs. I found this quote, I know not where “I have more or less been on this diet for 22 years, my whole life, with the addition of bread and tomato soup. I’m really glad someone has tested this diet and shown that it is not as bad as everyone thinks.”
Tom Cassidy, Derry
Good man, Tom Cassidy! I remember you reading that quote at your talk at the GIY Gathering in Waterford earlier this year David – love it.